Why a Supreme Court ruling may help curb corruption

A Supreme Court ruling that further lifts curbs on money in politics is a reminder of why global efforts against corruption must be grass roots.

Shaun McCutcheon, a business owner who wanted to donate to multiple candidates, stands in front of the Supreme Court in Washington Sept. 13 when his case was heard. He won in a ruling Wednesday.

What is the most discussed problem in the world? A BBC poll in 2010 found it was corruption. That may help explain not only the string of recent protests for honesty in government from Tunisia to Ukraine but also recent rulings in the United States on laws designed to prevent corruption in Congress.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court lifted yet another legal restriction on money in federal campaigns. Contributors will no longer be limited to an aggregate limit of $123,200 over a two-year election cycle. A five-justice majority did uphold the current $2,600 donation to each candidate in primary and general elections, saying this restriction is permissible in order to curb a lawmaker’s potential interest in doing specific favors for a particular donor – or even the appearance of such corruption. But corruption is unlikely when a donor gives the same $2,600 to a number of political candidates or groups. Such broad limits on contributions deny political expression, or free speech.

“The only type of corruption that Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. “The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”

The ruling will likely now allow wealthy donors to put more money into political campaigns, just as a 2010 court ruling known as Citizens United opened a door for corporations to spend money on political advertising. Combined, the two decisions should compel voters to act in countering the influence of money in campaigns. 

Justice Roberts even suggested ways to do that. One is to require better disclosure of contributions, which may deter corruption by shining a light on the donors. Today’s digital technology, he said, now offers “more robust protections against corruption” than during the 1970s when campaign-finance laws were passed.

He also cited a 1971 ruling that the protection of free speech, which includes most political spending, helps put “the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us ... in the belief that no other approach would comport with the premise of individual dignity and choice upon which our political system rests.”

In other words, it is up to voters to properly judge political ads paid with campaign donations, to not be apathetic in voting, and to keep in touch with their representatives.

Fighting corruption, or at the least undue influence of money in politics, requires more of a grass-roots effort than a top-down one. That is the lesson from a two-decade global fight against corruption by such groups as Transparency International. Frank Vogl, a founder of TI and author of the book “Waging War on Corruption,” says the world may be at a tipping point in mass movements to force transparency and accountability in government. Laws, treaties, and civil society groups are helping – led by people “driven by a sense of what is right” – but bottom-up action by citizens makes a bigger difference.

“My journey over the last two decades across the roads of corruption-fighting have shown me that at its core this is a battle about human dignity and self-respect,” he said in a speech last year.

Instead of being the most discussed global debate, perhaps corruption in government is becoming the most acted upon.

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